SCOTUS Rules against Discrimination over a Headscarf | DCR Workforce Blog

SCOTUS Rules against Discrimination over a Headscarf

An Indian friend, who is a frequent flyer and a Hindu, very recently told me that his luggage seems to get checked more thoroughly at airports than other passengers’. On a trip to Sri Lanka, he found the lock on his suitcase broken and the contents rummaged through, though nothing was missing. He said it is probably because he sports a beard – implying that his beard probably makes him look like a Muslim and draws suspicion from security personnel at these airports! Appearance and dress do go a long way when people make assumptions and draw conclusions about people. My friend understands and accepts this and willingly co-operates to alleviate their security concerns.

The problem comes when these conclusions are used as a basis for discriminating against these persons. Security concerns might claim precedence over an individual’s rights, but discrimination cannot affect one’s livelihood by denying access to gainful employment. According to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), Muslims in America file more employment discrimination claims than any other religious group and more frequently report their employer’s failure to provide religious accommodations.

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has just made discriminatory employment practices harder. In an overwhelming decision against Abercrombie and Fitch, the SCOTUS ruled 8-1 in favor of the EEOC, which represented a Muslim woman, Samantha Elauf, who was denied a job because she wears a headscarf or hijab, for religious reasons. This should come as no surprise, because freedom of speech and freedom of religion are both rights guaranteed by the First Amendment in the United States.

When Elauf applied for a sales job with Abercrombie and Fitch, the store had a ‘look’ policy which required the sales staff to wear clothing which promoted their brand’s East Coast collegiate image. Though she wore a hijab to the interview, she never mentioned that she was a Muslim, that she wore her headscarf for religious reasons, and she never requested the company to allow her to wear it as a religious accommodation. The company’s prescribed look required no headwear and it was also against the use of make-up, nail polish or black clothing, which happened to be the color of Ms. Elauf’s hijab. She met all other requirements for the job. However, having made an assumption that she would insist on wearing the hijab, they denied her a job saying it would violate their ‘look’ policy. The matter was taken to court by the EEOC.

This case has helped unite Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other religious organizations as all were keen to ensure that employers cannot make an applicant’s religious practice a factor when making employment decisions.

Some Predicted Outcomes:

  • Protection of the rights of workers to equal treatment in the workplace. Individuals will not have to sacrifice their religious beliefs or practices provided they inform an employer or a potential employer of the need for religious accommodation.
  • An employer cannot assume that an applicant would seek a religious accommodation and reject their candidature on that basis.
  • The employer and worker must find the balance between acknowledging an applicant’s need for accommodation while maintaining the requirement to not probe too much into the personal life of an applicant.

In other words, employers need to create tolerant workplaces. Candidates and employees must communicate their specific requirements, and all parties must take an open-minded approach. As always, our guidance is for employers to base employment policies on actual business requirements, and continually challenge themselves to ensure that those policies are compliant with the rights and protections of employees. By conducting these internal evaluations, companies can avoid litigation that is costly in terms of both money and reputation.

The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.
Lalita is a people/project manager with extensive experience in operations, HCM and training and development across industries like banking, education, business consulting, BPO and information technology. She believes in a dynamic approach to life and learning as change is the only constant.